Sharing Immigration Stories at Thanksgiving

Among the many complex issues that schools are faced with as demographics change and shift, one that is very personal to me is providing a rigorous education for all students. Ethnic and cultural diversity can enhance a school’s culture, but only if we vastly change our educational system to better meet the needs of all students, including new immigrants and undocumented students who are non-English-speaking and have educational gaps.

As an educator, I see it as my responsibility to ensure that every single student, no matter what country they come from or what language they speak, has access to a quality education. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Plyer v. Doe that all undocumented children are entitled to a free, public education (there are an estimated 1.8 million undocumented public school students today).

Equity in education comes to mind when I walk into Basalt High School each morning, a very diverse high school where 58% of students’ first language is Spanish, and a high percentage of the students qualify for free/reduced-price lunch. Most of our new students come from El Salvador, Mexico, and Honduras. It is very common for young immigrants from Latin America to embark alone on dangerous journeys to the United States in search of a place where they can live without fear, and know that the opportunities for success are far beyond what was possible in their native country.

Most of these students who arrive are not English speakers and have substantial educational gaps. Our challenge is to develop a systemic approach to instruction that accelerates their learning, closes the achievement gap, recognizes and honors their intellectual capabilities, and prepares teachers to address differences in cultural background knowledge in a dual-language classroom

My job as an English Language Development teacher is to do much more than just teach English. I build and constantly support relationships with students and families, supporting them as they acclimate to a new community, a new home with constantly changing values, traditions and expectations. Students and many families look to me as the bridge that connects two cultures.  I am the liaison for my students, between the despair they have experienced in the past to the hope they have for a better life and rewarding future. 

Each year, Basalt High School hosts a Thanksgiving dinner, and my team organizes and finds funds for all the English Language Development students and their families in our school to attend.  Around 350 family members and students attended the dinner this past year, which helped them understand the cultural meaning of the Thanksgiving tradition in our country. It is a very emotional evening, watching all these newcomers eat together sharing full plates of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing and cranberry sauce.

We engage the whole community: teachers go door-to-door to invite families, Honor Society students serve as waiters and waitresses, and members of our community prepare the meals for this special event. The dinner helps bridge the vast cultural gap that exists in the Basalt Community where stronger relationships begin to develop between educators, students and families.  

This year we set up the tables to represent every student’s country and serve food from each culture represented in our school.  As Cesar Chavez said, “We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens the community and this nation.”  

Last fall my ELD Geography students each presented the story of their journey from Latin America to Colorado. Students wrote a personal narrative, and used Google Maps to visually describe their journey to the United States. The stories were all similar: leaving their families behind, and traveling through unfamiliar towns and wilderness areas. They told stories of being threatened by gangs, of sexual assault, and harrowing travels.  

Learning targets of the Journey Project includes creating Google Maps to display geographic information, analyzing push and pull factors to understand human migration patterns, and writing personal narratives of their journeys to the United States.  

This project provides high school and middle school students with the  instructional values that  underpin deep social issues to tell their stories. We read immigration stories including "Meet Young Immigrant Students," and planning documents that prepare students for writing that includes checklists, rubrics aligned to common core standards, sample maps, and video narration options.

This project is designed to better meet the individual's needs of each student because each journey is unique and students can demonstrate their learnings in a variety of ways.  Students are also developing their technical computer skills, geography content knowledge and use of the English language.

My work as a teacher is about equity. I hold high expectations and believe students can achieve more than what we imagine, despite the hardships and challenges that they may face (for example, one of my students takes two buses to school, and works until midnight every night to help support his family). It is also important to incorporate students’ experiences, strengths and cultures into the classroom to make learning relevant and meaningful. 

Education is not solely the school’s responsibility and for each student to find success, the entire community must be committed and involved. An old proverb states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Our village includes teachers, families, and our community. When everyone realizes that this proverb is true, I believe we will see academic success. 

Image via Jennifer Boyer